Before the swivel of the hips, the backheel, and – of course – the nutmeg, Said Benrahma dropped a shoulder. It was a sharp feint, so obvious it sold the defender a dream, and while their eyes were still closed, he’d gone, the ball stuck to his foot, gliding effortlessly into the distance. Only then, legs splayed and pockets emptied, did Michael Hector realise that he’d been led down the darkest of alleyways.
It was a moment that personified Benrahma, nonchalantly beguiling and utterly brilliant, as he whipped the ball effortlessly into the top corner. After a summer weighed down by uncertainty over his future at Brentford, the club’s defeat in the playoff final still raw, it was not a night just for exacting trifling revenge against Fulham, but to reclaim his own stage. A first start of the season, a chance to remind hesitant admirers that his roulette-wheel of skills are not just a throwaway pleasure, but capable of changing a match in one sharp spin.
To a certain degree, when it comes to a player like Benrahma, football has become a little numb to the extraordinary. Perhaps, even spoiled by it. We’re inundated by highlight reels and ever-changing boundaries as to what’s possible. Two goals, six dribbles – the most of any player on the pitch – and a trail of jellied legs is simply what supporters in the Championship have become accustomed to from one of its outstanding players over the past 12 months.
And yet, as Benrahma shook off the speculation over his commitment with another exquisite shrug of his shoulder, the question remains: why, for all the stacks of evidence, the maverick tricks and game-changing moments, has no club made a concrete attempt to sign him?
The bare facts – 17 goals, 10 assists and just three missed games in a gruelling Championship season – should have made him irresistible to several Premier League clubs this summer. Instead, as the window draws to a close, he is caught in a type of transfer purgatory, with Brentford unwilling to risk him suffering an injury yet no move seemingly any closer to materialising.
In large part, the wavering inevitably stems from Brentford’s asking price, a figure of £25m that immediately wards off clubs with any lingering doubts. The Independent has also been told that the 25-year-old’s expected salary has been considered prohibitive by some, with Crystal Palace currently one of the few Premier League sides to have retained a firm interest.
But the reasoning is not quite as blunt as balance sheets alone. In a precarious and increasingly volatile transfer market, Benrahma is no longer viewed as an expensive risk, but an extravagance. The calibre of player who embodies the attractive and progressive style of play clubs aspire towards, but dare not whole-heartedly pursue for fear of replicating Norwich’s brusque relegation last season. When pageantry supersedes pragmatism, the compliments are almost always outweighed by the casualties.
It is a prism through which the majority of unnaturally skilful players are viewed. The notion that their added grace must always come with a caveat, be it a reluctance to track back, a lack of discipline or allergy to putting their bodies on the line. For every inch of freedom they are afforded, a manager is seen to be sacrificing a yard in defensive stability.
It is the same trend that has sparked the slow death of the traditional No 10, even at the highest reaches of the game – the reason why Mesut Ozil was outcast long before Mikel Arteta’s arrival at Arsenal; why Kai Havertz was making 80-yard runs to track back in defence on his Chelsea debut.
Meanwhile, the profile of sides interested in Benrahma – be it Palace, West Ham and Aston Villa – will more regularly be out of possession and on the back foot. Under those conditions, the margins for those individual moments of brilliance, the ability to conjure something from nothing, only become slimmer.
Take Thursday’s victory at the Community Stadium. While Benrahma inspired Brentford’s victory, he also misplaced 21 of his 43 passes. He consistently takes more risks than any other player on the pitch. The trouble with that is, in a team less dominant, they’re unlikely to pay off as regularly.
Eberechi Eze, a playmaker whose youth career was dogged by criticisms of his languid playing style, is comparable to Benrahma in some respects. Having joined Crystal Palace for £20m this summer, already it’s clear that he cannot be afforded the same level of liberty as he revelled in at QPR. That is simply a matter of necessity, a consequence of playing against higher level of opposition. But, by adding discipline to his game, it simultaneously restrains the innate instinct and understanding that makes him such a unique threat.
That is the complex Benrahma’s suitors are forced to resolve, whether he can fit into a system that isn’t built around him, without damaging the fundamental qualities that make him so successful. And while that answer appears no less clear, for now, the wait simply drags on.
Villa had long held an interest but only recently signed Bertrand Traore from Lyon, who scored just a single goal in Ligue 1 last season. Fulham, desperately scouring for centre-backs, chose to pursue a lower-risk option and signed Ademola Lookman on loan from RB Leipzig. West Ham have long admired Benrahma, but already have a squad overflowing with players of a similar ilk, who have often become exorbitant burdens.
A talent like Benrahma’s can be a gift and a curse. In the meantime, all he can do is drop his shoulder and continue to prove why Premier League clubs would not be taking a risk at all.